At one point in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax tells the story of a marketing rep’s attempt to steer him away from writing another conventional book. She suggests that Sax, author of Save the Deli and The Tastemakers, forget the fusty old publishing model of paper and print, and embrace the brave new world of “branded content,” which would involve presenting his ideas as a commercially sponsored blog or on some similar, cloud-based platform. Sax rejects the proposal, which he deems to fly directly in the face of his arguments against digital culture. Even so, a reader might be forgiven for feeling that the author is in the process of branding one central idea throughout his new book’s pages – not always convincingly.
Qualms begin with the choice of the word “revenge” for the title, and the frequency with which it appears in the book. The word crops up in every chapter head, beginning with “The Revenge of Vinyl,” and is hammered home without fail every two or three pages along the way. A more representative title would have been The Resilience of Analog, or even The Limitations of Digital, but how to sell a book framed by such comparatively timid concepts?
Sax’s book points to the somewhat revived popularity of vinyl records, film cameras, board games, etc., as proof of analogue culture’s durability. Fair enough. And there is a lot to be gleaned here about how records are manufactured, for instance, or the fact that Silicon Valley gurus use Moleskine notebooks to sketch their latest ideas. But even Sax concedes the niche appeal of these items, which mainly sell to affluent consumers.
In the second half of the book, Sax broadens his premise to show how analogue is supposedly exacting revenge against the digitization of publishing, retail, employment, and education. The trendy Detroit company Shinola, which makes expensive watches and other products, is held up as an example of an old-school manufacturer that employs real people (instead of robots) to make real things. As much as this effort can be applauded, does it really represent a pervasive bulwark against the growing trend toward robotics and rising unemployment? It’s also heartening to read that numbers of independent booksellers are starting to creep back up (at least in the U.S.), but Sax muddies things by lumping big-box stores, which aren’t driven by digital sales, with Amazon, which is (its few physical locations notwithstanding).
A bigger problem is the way the author stacks the deck by seeming to define everything that isn’t digital as analogue. The reality is that many things aren’t either, and some things are both. A small shop, no matter how friendly and cozy, probably relies on digital technology to one extent or another. It’s one thing to compare paper and electronic publishing, film and digital photography, or board games and video games. But Sax implicitly grants analogue functionality to everything from wooden tables to the act of meditation. By that tilted definition, analogue has no need for revenge, since it was never vanquished in the first place.